Starting a role as Headteacher of a special needs school in the middle of the first Covid lockdown, takes a person of great determination and optimism.
Fortunately, Mick Simpson’s wealth of experience in challenging educational contexts stood him in good stead when he started as Headteacher of Olsen House school in Crosby and staff talk of transformed behaviour and calmer, happier children at a school already rated ‘Good’ by Ofsted. The school has grown from thirty pupils, to forty, then forty-five and now fifty pupils.
Sixty per cent of the children at Olsen House are on the autism spectrum but, as Mick explains, “ 100% have social and communication challenges.”
In fact, a high number of pupils have missed months or even years of school, sometimes following exclusion. Locally, the school has built a reputation for turning round the futures of children locked out of education, and is full. Many of the current pupils have older siblings who have been through the school and who are now studying at College: the ultimate testament to the school's “Dream, Believe, Achieve” motto.
Mick is undoubtedly a figure of zeal and confidence, with the ability to seemingly be “everywhere at once” as one staff member puts it. He is personally involved in the smallest of details, as part of his drive for the consistency he believes children with special needs require.
Having started his career in a mainstream school in a challenging context, the young Mick Simpson was something of an authoritarian, modelling the practice he saw from older teachers. Early in his leadership career he completed a course on non-confrontational behaviour management which, in his own words, “Changed me overnight. I introduced it to the school I was at, and I have introduced it to every school I have led since. Our approach is based on a very substantial body of peer reviewed research, and I developed it in collaboration with the Unit of School and Family Studies at Goldsmiths University. It works, and I continue to see the benefits to pupils, staff and our wider school community.”
Mick says: “We run on compassion. Not confrontation. And we work on reward, not punishment. That isn’t because it sounds trendy, but because it works.”
“Behaviour is a series of choices, and by reinforcing positive choices, and helping children become aware of that choice process, you activate that very powerful reward centre in the brain which make it likely that the positive behaviour is repeated. Over time, neural pathways are established which mean that these positive choices become an established part of a young person’s behavioural repertoire. That is why parents say to me, I don’t recognise my child their behaviour has improved so much.”
Reward at Olsen House is a daily event. A 40-minute reward time comes at the end of each day, which might involve a trip to the local beach, a walk in the woods or screentime: children make their own choices.
Earning the reward is all based on the choices the child makes during the day. Staff use scripts (Mick is strong on consistency) to guide conversations. These scripts focus on keywords so that children have good choices reinforced and highlighted. Raising consciousness in this way, tied to a simple points system, really changes behaviour over time. Plus, the structure of the scoring means that one bad choice can be compensated for. As Mick says:
“You can still turn a horrible morning into a good day with the points system.”